Archive for the ‘Featured’ Category
Wednesday, April 14th, 2010
Last week I talked about “serious games” – games with a real-world purpose. I am a bit cynical about them. While games can teach useful lessons, a good game can also be addictive. Players escape into games because their real lives suck. They get feelings of control and success in the game world that they lack in the mundane world. Jane McGonigal suggests that we channel those positive feelings into real life accomplishments.
I have a different idea – If reality sucks, and games are more fun, change the rules! Make your life into a game, and find ways to make it a game you love to play.
Who Makes the Rules?
“Who makes the rules? Someone else.” – Oingo Boingo, “No Spill Blood”
Most of us think of gaming as, “Someone else made the rules. We play by them.” That seems obvious and sensible. But that’s no longer the only type of game. Role-playing games have a “game master” (GM) who has special privileges. The GM can interpret and even modify the rules. The GM and all of the players are responsible for using their imaginations to create original stories that go beyond the rules.
And that leads to a strange truth about role-playing games: The rules don’t really matter!
I have seen similar campaigns based on wildly different role-playing game systems. And I’ve seen wildly different scenarios within a single game system. It is the imaginations of the GM and the players that make a good or a bad game, not the rules they use.
Of course, that’s just gaming, not real life. Or is it?
Life Is a Role-Playing Game
“Life is a cabaret, old chum. Come to the cabaret!” – Liza Minnelli in Cabaret
Read some personal column ads and you’ll soon find the words, “No games.” Ok, so they don’t like Monopoly. Of course, what they really mean is, “Don’t play to win in a way that makes me lose.” Most people think of games as having a winner and a loser.
Role-playing games are different. The players win or lose together. The GM sets the scene, and puts challenges in front of the players, but is not “playing against” the other players. A good GM wants the players to succeed, but for the success to be challenging, memorable, and meaningful.
A good life should also be meaningful, challenging, and memorable. Coincidence? I think not! A life lived with creativity and passion is a lot like a good role-playing game. Instead of trying to use games to make our miserable lives better, why don’t we turn our lives into games? Maybe they already are.
What is a job? That is where you earn game currency to make investments and pay your expenses.
What are taxes? They are game penalties. You need to earn more game currency to pay for them.
What is school? School is training to help you gain levels and skill points.
What are relationships? They are cooperative mode game play; you join with other players to help all of you reach your goals.
What are regular tasks such as cooking, cleaning, paying bills, and filing? They are the daily quests you perform to support your character, build your reputation, and support your friends.
What are accomplishments? They are the Achievement System of life. You work hard to achieve goals that you give yourself or get from others. Sometimes you earn Achievement Points for doing them.
Who Is To Be Master?
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”
Life is a game. But what kind of game is it? Is it one of those relationship “games” where someone always has to lose? Is it a game where someone else writes the rules, and we don’t like them very much, but we have to play by them? Or is it a role-playing game, where the rules don’t matter nearly as much as the creative stories we weave around them? In other words, who is to be the master?
If we treat our lives as part of a role-playing game, we can all have a lot more fun than we may have allowed ourselves in the past. We can also use some of what we know about game play to do better at playing the game of our lives. But first we have to decide who is the game master.
I’ve played in some fun role-playing campaigns where the players took turns being the game master. Each player took responsibility for a particular area. When the players moved into that area, the “owner” of that area became the game master for a few sessions. That was how Gygax, Arneson and friends played the “first fantasy campaign” that spawned Dungeons & Dragons.
Do you feel out of control in your life? Maybe you keep skipping your turn at being the game master. Or maybe you’ve put way too many “Skip a Turn” cards into your collectible life card deck. The funny thing is, most of us think that someone else decides who gets to be the game master, and who just plays. But nobody is making those decisions for us. In a role-playing game, a player gets to be the game master by saying, “I’ll be game master.” It works pretty much the same way in life.
A game master has a lot of responsibility, and it is hard work to run a game, but it is also amazingly rewarding. The GM has total freedom to create an experience for the other players. That, by the way, is the most important key to being a good GM – Your job is to help all of the players have fun. Fortunately, the GM is a player too. If you play the game right, life is better for all of you.
The rules do not make the game. They are just the context in which you define the experience of your life.
Guiding the Game
“The code is more ‘guidelines’ than what you’d call actual rules.” – Pirate Captain Barbossa in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Lori and I have some guidelines we use for every game we design. For example:
1. The players must have fun. This is our #1 “rule” for every game.
2. Make choices clear, meaningful, and interesting.
3. Creating the game must be fun – We are playing a “game” too.
4. Don’t frustrate the player with dead-ends or stupid responses.
These all apply to a good life just as much as to good game design.
Who are your players? Remember, we aren’t “playing the game of life” right now – We’re creating it and being the game master. Your players are the people around you – your friends, family, co-workers, and fellow students. When you work out the rules for your game, make sure that the people around you will have fun and a chance to earn their own achievements. Fortunately, Rule 3 says that you get to have fun too. Just don’t do it at the expense of your other “players”.
Clear, meaningful, and interesting choices keep players involved in a game. They’re even more important in life. Invest in the quality of your life by consciously making choices. Think about your goals and how you can achieve them. Make a list of things you would like to accomplish, places you’d like to go, and experiences you would like to have. You probably make lists like this for work or school. Why not take the time to plan the things that really matter to you? You can let things just happen to you, or you can decide on what you want to do and take the time and effort to make it happen.
Dead-ends, stupid responses, and frustration are part of life. You will have times when you feel that the game is rigged and that the world is actively trying to keep you from your goals. But here’s where life has a big advantage over games – With the exception of a few laws of physics, the rules aren’t fixed. If you are frustrated in one place, go somewhere else. If one approach doesn’t work, try another. Games are limited to the imagination of the designer and the time constraints on the development team. Real life has no such restrictions; you are limited only by your own imagination.
There is one category of “dead ends and stupid responses” you should definitely design out of your “game of life.” That is the set you impose upon yourself. The stupidest dead-end response you can give yourself is, “I can’t do that.” Take the phrase “I can’t” out of your vocabulary. Practice saying instead, “That may be hard, but I’ll give it a try.” If something seems impossible, think about how you can make it possible. Break the hard problem down into smaller, less difficult, tasks. Or redefine it to something that meets the spirit of the original goal, but that you can find a way to achieve. But don’t give up on anything that you really care about.
If you try, but fail, that isn’t the time to quit; do more work and preparation, then try again. Players fail a lot in World of Warcraft, but they keep going back and trying again until they succeed. Life and games are both about conflict and resolution. If you run into an obstacle, look for the solution – You could destroy it, temporarily move it, go around it, find a way over it, dig under it, or use it to redefine the problem. If you haven’t tried at least three solutions, you’re giving up too easily.
“Life is a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” – Forrest Gump
Being the Game Master of your life is hard work, but that just means you are overcoming challenges. Challenges are the key to making games fun and rewarding; you get a lot more achievement points for doing hard things than easy ones. And there’s more!
As both the GM and as one of the players, you get to create the tale of life’s adventure together. That collaboration means that a well-played life is always a mystery. Until you bite into each experience, you never know how it will taste. You may just find that some of those “impossible” goals will be fulfilled in ways you could never have guessed.
When you make your life into a role-playing game, and take on the responsibility of being the GM, you turn your life into a mysterious box of chocolates. Will you taste them, or settle for someone else’s empty wrappers? The choice is up to you.
Thursday, October 15th, 2009
The world is ending, and we’re all responsible. The greedy industrialists and we rabid consumers keep building factories and wasting more natural resources. We are filling the skies with carbon dioxide and pollutants, causing temperatures to rise around the world. The polar ice caps are melting, leading to tsunamis and further warming. Dogs and cats living together! The end of life as we know it!
At least, those are the dire warnings we’ve all been reading for the last twenty years and more. But what if they’re all wrong? What if the warming trend is just a natural cycle, just as Earth has gone through many times before? What if our factories, automobile exhaust, and love of one-use packaging are completely unrelated to the issue of global warming? What if it isn’t a real problem, or at least not one we can solve?
Today (October 15, 2009) is Blog Action Day and this year’s topic is Global Warming. This got us to thinking. We have a really good – and highly intelligent – friend who argues persuasively that “global warming” is a myth. He points out that the world has always had cycles of warmer and cooler climates and that there is no real proof that our industrial society is contributing to the current warming trend. It may well be that Earth is not so much heating up as emerging from a mini Ice Age into a more normal pattern.
The Principle of the Least Mistake
Another friend of ours loves to use the phrase, “The Principle of the Least Mistake.” The idea is that any time you can “take out cheap insurance”, you should. For example, you are going on a car trip through the desert. Your car is in good condition and well maintained, and you don’t expect any problems, but you take a few gallons of water with you anyway. This action has a cost – You had to go through some effort to pack something you don’t expect to need – but the reward if you do need it might literally be your life. You pay a small cost rather than have a small chance of suffering a major loss.
Conserving, recycling, and minimizing our “carbon footprint” are least mistake actions. Each takes some effort and might not make a big dent on global warming, but a lot of such small actions taken by many people could prevent a big mistake. And, as with many least mistake actions, they can pay unexpected dividends. California is banning incandescent bulbs. Replacing them with compact fluorescent or LED lights will cost us money in the short run, but the long-term benefits include longer life for the bulb and less power consumption. We’ll all win in the long run even if we aren’t helping to save the world.
It Can’t Hurt
There are a lot of small things you can do that might or might not help global warming… but could make your life better regardless:
- Avoid packaged foods. Eat more fresh vegetables and other simple foods. The cost: You may have to shop more often. Preparation will take longer. The benefits: Less waste (from packaging). You’ll save money. Fresh food tastes better and your health and energy level will likely improve.
- Refill water bottles at the store rather than buying new ones each time you run out. Or install a water filter so you don’t need to buy bottled water. The first approach is a pain, but it will save you money. The second has an up-front cost, but will save you time and possibly money in the long run. And you won’t have to deal with all those empties.
- By the way, drink water, not soda. More and more research is showing how terrible sugar is for our bodies. The artificial sweeteners are probably safer, but they haven’t been around long enough for us to be sure about that. Learn to love tea (we make it a pot at a time with a single teabag) or the freshness of plain water. You’ll eliminate the wasted cans and bottles and do your body a favor.
- Next time you trade in your car, get a fuel-efficient model. If you can, take public transportation. Even better – Ride a bike. The cost – You may have to wait for a bus and stand in a crowd. You may have to walk at each end. On your bike, you will constantly be in danger from careless drivers. Oh, but the benefits! You will save a fortune. You’ll never have to worry about finding a parking space. That extra walking – or bike riding – will improve your strength, energy, and general health. So what if global warming isn’t caused by hydrocarbon emissions? You’ll have made your own life better.
Keep Your Cool
Here’s the thing – Even if you disagree with someone’s main thesis, that doesn’t mean you can’t listen to the rest of what they have to say. There may be reasonable doubt about the causes of global warming, the best way to handle health care, and many other issues. But that doesn’t mean that someone who disagrees with us on the major points has nothing valuable to say. I’ve heard some great ideas from people all across the political spectrum.
In the case of global warming, we have a “least mistake” situation. If it’s an inevitable, natural climate change, then perhaps there’s nothing we can do about it except learn to live in a hotter environment. But if we’re making it worse with our industry and personal habits, why not take out a little insurance? Do what you can to reduce your use of energy and encourage your friends and neighbors to do the same. The costs are small compared to the potential benefits… and you may find you’re making your life better even if the theories of global warming are completely wrong.
Be one of the cool people. You know the mantra – “Reduce, Recycle, Reuse.” What can it hurt?
Thursday, April 23rd, 2009
Moving the World
The Internet is abuzz with the tale of Susan Boyle, 47-year-old singing sensation who took the “Britain’s Got Talent” TV show by storm a couple of weeks ago. In case you’ve been hiding under a rock, Miss Boyle appeared on stage as an unemployed, overweight, middle-aged woman with frizzy hair. Then she sang “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables so beautifully that the audience and judges were enthralled.
The story here isn’t about a talent show, or that a singer gave a great performance. It’s about reaching for the stars, building on the unique talent we each have, and breaking through barriers. It’s also about the prejudices and stereotypes we hold, and getting beyond them to recognize value in others of all types. In this music video world, we tend to assume that great singers are also young and physically beautiful. What a strange idea!
You see, Miss Boyle is not the first out-of-type singer to be successful, and far from the oldest. If she had started her music career at 20, nobody would be surprised if she were still singing professionally at 50. And while appearance matters in pop music, it’s less important in other branches. Luciano Pavarotti did not exactly look like Orlando Bloom, but he sang before a lot of packed houses.
The judges on Britain’s Got Talent showed astonishment at Susan Boyle’s appearance, but they didn’t have to go back far to find a similar case. The overall 2007 winner of the competition was Paul Potts, a round-faced, ordinary-looking cell phone salesman. He sang an operatic solo with such clarity and depth that his performance made even opera haters sit up and listen. Mr. Potts has since released a CD that sold over 2 million copies. Clearly the voice matters much more than appearance… of course, the publicity value of winning a televised competition was also essential to his success.
So who are these incredible phenomena, Susan Boyle and Paul Potts? Did they spring forth, like Venus from the ocean, to suddenly have the voices of angels?
Of course not! Each of them worked for years at their craft and polished their innate talents until they were ready to perform their songs in front of millions. According to Wikipedia, “Potts first sang opera in 1999 in a karaoke competition, dressed as Luciano Pavarotti. That same year, he appeared in the Michael Barrymore talent show My Kind of Music. Although he did not take first place, he won £8,000 — enough to help pay for vocal lessons in Italy, during which he was selected to perform in front of singers Pavarotti and Katia Ricciarelli.”
Miss Boyle was also musically active 10 years ago – “In 1999, Boyle used “all her savings” to pay for a professionally cut demo tape, which she later sent to record companies, radio talent competitions, local and national TV and which has now been released on the Internet. It consisted of “Cry Me a River” and her version of “Killing Me Softly with His Song”.” Susan performed in benefit concerts, but remained unnoticed.
These talented singers did not come out of nowhere and suddenly learn to sing. They honed their talents over many years, then were catapulted into the international spotlight by their opportunities on the talent show and the viral nature of Internet “word of web”.
Most importantly, they persisted in the face of tremendous challenges. Susan’s father died about 15 years ago and she was the caregiver for her mother until her mother’s death in 2007. Paul went through a series of illnesses and accidents that prevented him from singing for several years. Ordinary people might have given up in these circumstances, but these are Heroes. They picked themselves up, stood up before the risk of failure and humiliation, and kept trying.
The media has made much of the initial scorn directed towards Susan Boyle – The message, “You’re unattractive, so we won’t like you.” But that isn’t how I see it. I watch the instant change from skepticism to adoration in the Talent audience, and I don’t see bad, prejudiced, judgmental people. I see people who needed inspiration and found it. I see an immediate recognition and acceptance of beauty that made physical appearances irrelevant. I see how one Hero can make a difference in the lives of thousands, then millions, then hundreds of millions.
I see this because I went to a Mensa party in San Diego, and the people there just had to share Susan Boyle’s performance for those of us who do normally live in caves. Lori learned about the performance from a blog on “five inspirational videos”. In case we’d missed it, my sister-in-law sent me a link she’d gotten from her sister.
One act, hundreds of millions of people touched. By the way, Susan’s choice of material was inspired. The judges on Britain’s Got Talent ask each contestant, “What’s your dream?” Performing “I Dreamed a Dream” is certainly a response to that! I’ve listened to her performance 5 or 6 times now, and each time I am moved and energized by it.
Got Have Talent
“We aren’t all Susan Boyles and Paul Pottses,” you may be thinking. They’re clearly extraordinary individuals. But this isn’t a story about where they are now; it’s about how they became what they are. Because they didn’t start out as stars either. They began as individuals who loved singing and kept doing it, and getting training, and trying over and over to become noticed, until finally they did.
We hear about the odds, that 50,000 people auditioned for Britain’s Got Talent, and only one person wins each year. Well, those aren’t the real odds. There are about 61 million people in the United Kingdom. That means that less than 1 out of 1000 even tried to get on the show. The others self-selected themselves out of the running. You don’t win by failing to try. You succeed by pushing and learning and working and taking risks. You succeed by going out there and doing things you believe in.
We all have that power to inspire. All we have to do is to take stock of our own skills and talents, work to nurture and strengthen them, then dare to stand up and show the world what we have. It might start with helping one person with a small project, or singing in a local chorus, or even writing a blog article. At first only a few people will notice, but if you inspire them, they will remember it. Maybe they’ll find a way to pass on the story, or maybe it will help them to create inspiration of their own. But the wave will spread and it will be good.
That is why we started The School for Heroes. Everyone here has some talent, some skill. The Band of Bards is specifically about performance, but all Heroes perform when the time comes. Paladins “perform” by helping people, but also literally stand before an audience at times. Warriors lead, and that doesn’t just mean walking in front. It also means using words to convince others to do what needs to be done. Wizards teach; that’s a performance too.
But most importantly, we dream, and we work to fulfill those dreams. The School is designed to help each of us understand who we are, what we believe in, and how to make our dreams become reality.
Dream the Dream
It doesn’t have to stop there. The Ars Heroica is currently seen by a few hundred Hero students and other visitors. But each one of us has the power to multiply that audience. When you see an article that moves you the way Susan Boyle and Paul Potts moved their listeners, pass it on. Post a link to it in response to another blog. Mention it on your Facebook page. Work with other students to create a video illustrating the ideas and post it to YouTube. Email a few friends and link them the article that might start to change their lives. You have so much more power than you realize!
So what is your dream? What is the one thing that you want to accomplish more than anything else? Find your passion, live your dream, and make it real. It won’t be easy. You’ll have to do a lot of hard work. You may face ridicule and rejection. But believe in your dream and maybe, some day, you can inspire people as much as Paul Potts and Susan Boyle.
Thursday, March 12th, 2009
Last week we talked about Achievements in a general sense. Today, let’s look at some ways you can improve your chance of achieving the results you desire. By the way, these tips apply to job hunting, school, and success at games and sports just as much as to entrepreneurship and work projects. Here’s a 7-point plan that can help you to achieve your goals:
- 1. Prepare the ground. Learn skills. Study, practice, learn some more.
- 2. Make friends and contacts.
- 3. Decide what you want to do and where you want to go… but stay flexible.
- 4. Keep your eyes open. Recognize opportunities when they arrive and GRAB them.
- 5. Whatever task you take on, commit yourself fully to doing it well. Put in the time, effort, and leadership to make it happen and make it great.
- 6. Help others to do great work as well. Be a mentor to those who need it.
- 7. Listen and learn from the people who can make you do better work. Don’t be arrogant.
Preparation Makes Perfect
Prepare the ground. Learn skills. Study, practice, learn some more.
Would you go into an exam without studying or even reading a book on the subject first? I’ve tried that; it didn’t work out. Achievements are far more likely if you prepare for them. I got into Sierra because I spent two years before that working on an Atari ST software project. That project failed, but the experience taught me what I needed to know to get a job at Sierra. In another sense, Lori and I spent our whole lives preparing to create Quest for Glory. We played games, studied writing and programming, learned animation, and picked up other skills and knowledge that let us design and create good games.
Win Friends and Influence People
Make friends and contacts.
Almost every great opportunity we’ve had has come about because we took the time to meet and get to know interesting people. We got the jobs at Sierra because we knew Carolly Hauksdottir – a free-lance animator who did work for Sierra – from science fiction conventions and filksinging. I got my first professional programming job because my father mentioned that I was studying programming to Gus German, head of Geac Computers.
Decisions are made by people, not computers. Get to know people and you will find opportunities opening for you. More importantly, you’ll find your life is richer for having friends and acquaintances who share some of your interests.
Have a Plan, but Not a Straightjacket
“Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.” – Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
Decide what you want to do and where you want to go… but stay flexible.
It’s hard to hit the target if you don’t aim. One of the exercises we did in Lifespring training a few years ago was called, “What do you want?” It challenged us to examine our lives and goals and ask ourselves, “What do we really want?” Until you answer that question, any achievements you accomplish will be random ones. Make a plan; have a goal.
However, life isn’t static. Sometimes circumstances change, and sometimes you change. You should re-examine your goals every year. Ask yourself what progress you’ve made towards them. If you haven’t made any, ask yourself, “Why not?” Is it that you were never really committed to the goal? Do you really still believe in it? This isn’t a time to give up because your goal is too hard, but it is a time to “examine your premises.” You may find that your plan was really someone else’s. Or it could be the opposite – You might have been living your life by someone else’s standards instead of your own. Check your premises, but don’t use that as an excuse for giving up on something you really do care about.
Grab the Brass Ring
Keep your eyes open. Recognize opportunities when they arrive and GRAB them.
Way back when, there were places called “amusement parks.” They had rides such as ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds (aka carousels). You might still find them at County fairs. For young children and old people, a carousel was a nice calm ride around in a circle. But for more adventurous sorts, there was the Quest for the Brass Ring.
If you sat (or stood) on the outside and timed your leap just right, you could grab a ring from a dispenser outside the carousel. Most of the rings were iron, but one was made of brass. If you managed to grab the brass ring, you could turn it in for a free ride. Not much of a prize, perhaps, but definitely an Achievement.
Life is like a carousel ride. You can quietly ride along and take what comes to you, or you can reach out and try to grab the rings. It’s riskier; you might fall off and bruise your ego. But if you never take that risk, you’re unlikely to achieve a lot. And the more you try, the better chance you have of coming away with the Brass Ring, and that’s a real prize. I mentioned in the last article that Lori and I got the chance to make Quest for Glory only because we took the chance when it came to us. Our lives might have been more comfortable if we had stayed in San Jose, but they certainly wouldn’t have been as exciting!
If You Stop Swimming Halfway, You Drown
Whatever task you take on, commit yourself fully to doing it well. Put in the time, effort, and leadership to make it happen and make it great.
One of the things we noticed when we first started working in the game industry was that everyone has “great ideas” for games, but very few of them can actually take their ideas and make them into great games. Famous authors often hear fans say, “I have this great idea for a story and I want to collaborate on it with you. I’ll provide the ideas and you write the story.”
Guess what? Authors and game designers have ideas too. The difference is that they’re the ones pouring out the sweat and blood to turn them into stories and games. Finishing a game – or any big project – is far more difficult than starting it. That’s because to really be finished, all the i’s have to be dotted and all the t’s have to be crossed. You have to fix all the nagging bugs or sloppy writing, and that takes ten times as long as the initial writing.
This Isn’t All About You
Help others to do great work as well. Be a mentor to those who need it.
Games and other software products are made by increasingly-large teams for a reason. There are a lot of different responsibilities, and nobody can handle them all. If you are leading a team – or working on one – you need to respect the needs of everyone else on the team. If anyone on the team is having trouble, that’s trouble for the whole team. Take the time to make sure everyone has the tools and inspiration they need. Treat their problems as your own.
That doesn’t mean you have to do everybody else’s work. In fact, trying to do that is a recipe for an ulcer and shows a lack of respect for your teammates. What you can do is help make their jobs easier. When the programmers at my first job had to pull an all-nighter to make a deadline, the VP of Marketing went out to the army surplus store and came back with foam mattresses, toothbrushes and toothpaste, and clean socks. Midnight snacks were also involved. He took on a task most executives would consider “beneath them” in order to help the rest of the team do things that he could not do himself.
Look, Listen, and Learn
Listen and learn from the people who can make you do better work. Don’t be arrogant.
I’ve met two kinds of managers. One type says, in effect, “I am in charge. I have the authority. You do what I tell you.” The other type thinks differently, “I am a resource to help you do your jobs well. I make decisions because that’s efficient, but I make them based on your input.” Guess which type creates better products and has a happier, more productive team?
Lori and I knew where we wanted to go with Quest for Glory and Castle of Dr. Brain, but we also knew that the developers had a lot of expertise in many areas. Our artists and musicians knew how to make a game look and sound beautiful. They also knew a lot of tricks for working around the limitations of 16-color computer graphics and trying to fit everything on floppy disks. Our programmers had made other Sierra games before. They knew much more than we did about the processes for building games efficiently and the art of making them play smoothly.
We discussed our ideas with the team and worked out compromises that could actually be implemented. In the course of that, Lori and I learned a lot of techniques we were able to use in the later games. Even the feel of the games was as much from the developers who put them together with us as it was from the game designs. I don’t think I wrote the first pun in Quest for Glory 1. Bob Fischbach, one of the programmers, had that honor. Once Lori and I gave it our stamp of approval, we ran with it, and the game many of you played resulted from that collaboration.
The Magnificent Seven
These seven ideas are not the only approach to achievement and success, but we think they’re a good start. Give them a try and see what new achievements you can make in your life. Life is not an easy game, but it can be a fun one if you use the right strategies.
Thursday, November 6th, 2008
This is a momentous time. The United States has just elected Barack Obama as our next President. The obvious “change” there is that we elected a black man, but that’s a side note. More important to me is that we have chosen a highly intelligent, very well educated thinking person as President; but that’s secondary too. The real change is a commitment to change, the realization that we can’t just keep on doing things the way we’ve done them for centuries. And it’s a statement that we need to be open to change within ourselves to prosper and succeed.
Here’s a quote from Mr. Obama’s nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention last August:
“I get it. I realize that I am not the likeliest candidate for this office. I don’t fit the typical pedigree, and I haven’t spent my career in the halls of Washington. But I stand before you tonight because all across America something is stirring. What the naysayers don’t understand is that this election has never been about me; it’s about you.”
It’s about us. For the last eight years, American politics has been about “them”. It’s been about reacting to the terrorist attacks on 9/11. It’s been about reacting to the fear of possible “weapons of mass destruction” and a despotic regime in Iraq. It’s about counting on our government to protect us from the outside world and keep us safe. But it hasn’t been about protecting our quality of life, or about individuals taking responsibility to improve their own lives or to make the world a better place.
Well, now it’s about us. It is a time for change, but the change must come from within each of us. It is a time to take individual action, a time for hard work, and a time for Heroes.
A Book for Heroes
John F. Kennedy once said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Barack Obama said something similar Tuesday night, “I will ask you join in the work of remaking this nation the only way it’s been done in America for two-hundred and twenty-one years – block by block, brick by brick, calloused hand by calloused hand.” It may be uncomfortable in a nation of luxury and entitlement, but we all have to help to make change happen. The nice thing is, as we work to help the world, we grow stronger as individuals.
What do we mean by that? We recently read a book that is changing our lives – and it might change yours – in very positive ways. The book is “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” by Carol S. Dweck, PhD. Ms. Dweck is a Professor of psychology at Stanford University and a researcher “in the fields of personality, social psychology, and developmental psychology.”
At its heart, Mindset is a very straightforward, single-topic book about the advantages of having a “growth mindset.” The author defines a “fixed mindset” as a belief that what you are is what you will be. You’re athletic or not. You’re smart or dumb. You’re good at art or have no talent. A “growth mindset” is the belief that you can learn and improve any area of your life – If you suck at calculus or basketball or playing the piano, that just means you need to work harder at learning and getting better at it. People who have a “growth mindset” – and apply it to how they live their lives – are much more successful and effective in every area of life than those who have a “fixed mindset.” It’s a simple idea, and I had heard it before, but an incredibly powerful one.
If Mindset is a one-idea book, why do we think you should all read it? It has to do with… mindset. The fixed mindset is all about taking the easy way out. The previous paragraph gave you the “easy way” version of mindset. You didn’t have to work for it; it got handed to you. One of the things we learned from Mindset is that learning doesn’t work that way. We grow by making a commitment to growth, accepting that we can do very difficult and challenging things, then working towards them step by step. When we’ve been exposed too much to the fixed mindset, it’s easy to see work as a negative thing. If we were truly smart, we wouldn’t have to work to learn something new or to accomplish something important. That mindset can work great when we’re being successful, but it has no coping strategy for challenges or failures.
Mindset contains dozens of examples of people with fixed and growth mindsets, and of studies that demonstrate how much more effective people who apply the growth mindset are. Some of those examples are absolutely astonishing! How about the teacher in Chicago who gets all the “failed” troublemaking kids and refuses to treat them as losers? By the end of the year, every student is reading well. By the time they’re in 5th or 6th grade, they’re reading Chekhov, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Socrates – and loving it. They get there step by step and by not having the option to quit when things get tough.
How about the idea of encouraging children by avoiding criticism and telling them how smart they are? That’s great, right? According to multiple research studies cited by Dweck, it’s a disaster! Children – and adults – learn by our mistakes and by being challenged. Children who did well on a test and were told they were really smart saw no reason to study. When they later did poorly on a harder test, they were devasted – “If doing well means I’m smart, then failing means I’m stupid.” They had no coping method and no tools for growth.
Children who were given the same series of tests, but were told, “You must have worked really hard to do so well on that test,” had a totally different experience. They too had trouble on the harder test, but they interpreted their failure differently – “I did poorly on that test, so I’ll have to work harder so I can do better next time.” With that simple change in mindset, these children continued to learn and did much better on the retest.
We Hope You’ll Change Your Mind
Now, you might not think that applies to you. Readers of this blog are probably really intelligent, well-educated people. There’s a good chance you read challenging works of literature, philosophy, or science. Well, if that’s the case, you could be in even greater danger! Thinking you’re smart by genetics or education makes it easy to think, “I’m brilliant because I succeeded at something. The moment I fail, I’ll stop being brilliant. It’s safer not to try at all.” You need to reinterpret yourself and take the attitude that, “I did great work on that project!” instead. That way you will reinforce the growth mindset and continue to work, learn, take risks, and grow. That’s why we think you should read Mindset, really thinking about the ideas and examples in it, and work to apply them in your own life.
I (Corey) remember a conversation, early in my career as a programmer. Someone asked me why I was willing to work long, crazy hours. I said, “Work is all about learning. I learn something new every day. If I ever stop learning new things at a job, it’s time to move on.” I used to get really embarrassed when someone said to me, “You must be really smart” or “You’re a genius!” because I felt I was just having fun learning new things. Unfortunately, somewhere in there I think I started believing the compliments and maybe forgot a little about how much real work it takes to create great software.
What do you do when you’ve been on the top of the world, a success, a star? Especially what do you do when you then have a couple of projects that are canceled, or that simply fail? What happens next depends on your mindset. If you believe that “success = brilliance,” then clearly “failure = stupidity.” Guess what, you’re now a has-been. You don’t dare start any new projects or take any big risks because they might not succeed and gasp! you might discover that you were a one-hit wonder. There, safe, whew!
What I learned from Ms. Dweck’s book is that being “safe” is the real failure. Every great accomplishment comes from incredibly hard work and the flexibility to keep learning and growing while you’re working at it. If you lose the growth mindset, you lose everything. Mindset came to me as a badly-needed kick in the ass.
That doesn’t mean I won’t screw up. It’s very easy to slide back into laziness. Even when you do everything exactly right, failure is always a possibility. But with the growth mindset, failure is just the start of a new opportunity. It’s a lesson and a chance to grow. Learning isn’t comfortable… but it’s fun. Hard work can be stressful… but it’s a lot less stressful than knowing you aren’t accomplishing anything. “Meaning” can be hard to come by, but it’s really rewarding when you find it and work for it.
A School for Change
By the way, The School for Heroes isn’t a “fixed” place either. It’s a living, growing site that will constantly be changing and adding new features. Within the next few weeks we’ll let you edit your personal page (you can already add a personal statement), view a roster of the students in each class, get to your Heroic assignments, let your friends know about your hero class and how to take the test, and much more. Soon we’ll have a forum where you can talk to other heroes-in-progress and discuss your work, plans, and ideas.
Of course, Lori and I have a lot of work to get all that done. We’re eagerly taking on the challenge and watching our hard work slowly turn into a real school for – and of – heroes. We hope you’ll all stay with us and take the missing features as challenges and growth opportunities. From a fixed mindset, every missing feature is a failure – The school obviously needs all those things. From the growth mindset, each one is an exciting opportunity for growth and change. The School for Heroes will never be a static site and you are all essential to helping it grow and become what it promises to be.
Read Mindset, please. Its message is both powerful and important. We live in a momentous time, a time for change, a time for heroes. Can we really make a difference – in ourselves and in the world around us? To quote our new President-Elect, “Yes, we can!”
Thursday, August 21st, 2008
A recent article in Game Developer magazine (August 2008 edition, page 34) had us saying, “Yes! Tell it like it is!”. Actually, the article was a standard “What went right and what went wrong” article about developing an adventure game. It was the sidebar by Penny Arcade co-creator Jerry “Tycho” Holkins that really caught our attention:
“If we had known what we were getting into, we would never have done it. Game development is an endless Sisyphean nightmare warren of terrible nightmares. We wish we could go back in time, to our first meeting with Hothead, and shake our past selves, crying out: “Run, fools! Run for your very lives! Game development is a nightmare warren,” et cetera. We would spend a lot of time driving home this nightmare warren concept.” – Tycho
[Incidentally, we view Penny Arcade almost every day. Check out their unique blend of sardonic humor as they discuss the ins and outs of Games and the Game Industry.]
We often have starry-eyed young game players come up to us and ask, “What does it take to become a Game Designer, O Great Ones?” (although they usually don’t phrase it quite that way). This is much like a son, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, asking, “What did you do in the Clone Wars, Daddy?” We put our arm on their shoulders (ok, Corey does that… Lori’s too short), smile condescendingly, and say, “Son, it takes Moxie. Moxie, hard work, and luck.” Then we pat them on the back and send them on their way with such sage advice as “Study Hard”, “Get Good Grades”, and “May the Force Be with You”.
What we don’t say to those innocent dreamers is that game development takes all the sweat from more work than you ever thought you were capable of doing. It takes the blood from opening up your creative heart and watching it all spill out upon the cutting room floor. It takes the tears of frustration and agony as you try to deal with impossible people doing impossible tasks under impossible deadlines. It also takes selling your soul to the Devil.
We don’t say it because:
- A. We don’t like scaring people
- B. We’d like to play their games someday
- C. We get a kickback from the Devil for every soul we get to sign on the dotted line
“There are a few things we wish we had known beforehand. First, not to make video games – but we covered that…” – Tycho
Why is game development so hard? We start out with a set of vague concepts about the game style and features, then spend months or years creating art and music, prototyping then refining the code, and gradually putting it all together. I can tell you that we were in total despair over a few of our games just three months before shipment because they felt bland and lifeless. Then the music and sound effects were added, and suddenly the games took on life. Still, even after a year or three of work, we’re never really sure we’ve created a great game until the fans come back and tell us we managed it.
The Horror! The Horror!
You might have heard horror stories about months-long crunch periods of 60 and 70 hour weeks to complete a game. The situation is industry-wide; almost all game companies have similar horrible overtime periods. But you may wonder why. I know we have at times… usually when we are in the middle of pulling an all-nighter.
What it all comes down to is that game development is an inherently chaotic process. We are trying to create an experience that has a certain feel and flavor, but our tools have no built-in intelligence. We have to draw every pixel, write every word of dialogue, and program every interaction. We create shortcuts for some of this, such as art tools that let us draw a polygon and apply a texture to it, object-oriented programming tools that let us specify a class of behavior for certain types of objects, and so on… but in the end, almost everything needs to be hand-tweaked, tested and retested for play balance, and finally reluctantly released to the playing public.
“… coming in as people who ordinarily just buy entertainment software, we didn’t understand that a project doesn’t actually look like anything until the very end. We had resigned ourselves to the fact that our game would be about grey blocks stumbling around a featureless world.” – Tycho
On the rare occasions when we get ahead of schedule, we use the extra time – and more – to add more features or to further tune the game play. Then, inevitably, many of the bugs and play balance problems show up only when we think the game is finished in the final phases of testing. This is of course because our characters are nothing but “grey blocks” for most of the development phase – The testers can’t really put a game through its paces until it’s almost finished.
No Pain – No Game?
Is it possible to create a great game without pain? In short, “no.” The pain can be reduced, and the overtime spread out a little, but a game produced strictly “by the book” on schedule is almost always a boring, flat-feeling game. That’s because game development is all about passion and chaos and “endless Sisyphean nightmare warrens.”
So, our advice to all you wannabe Game Designers really should be “don’t give in the the Dark Side of the Force.” But since no one ever takes that advice, don’t worry. We know a dandy lawyer who will be happy to write you up a Game Development contract. Don’t be too concerned if he asks you to sign it in blood. In triplicate.